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PolitiFact Florida | St. Petersburg Times
Sorting out the truth in state politics

Sink's ad attacking Scott gets fraud claims right, but also misleads

Democrat Alex Sink will air a new ad during your local 6 p.m. news broadcast today that whacks Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott for alleged fraud at Columbia/HCA, his former health care company, as well as at Solantic, his current health care business.

We (and likely you) have heard many of the claims before. Among them — that Scott took the Fifth Amendment 75 times in a deposition, that Columbia/HCA paid $1.7 billion in fines and that Solantic has been accused of fraud.

But this ad is different.

It's two minutes long and produced as a faux-news magazine segment called "Fraud Files." The only giveaway that the ad is political is the disclaimer saying the spot is paid for by the Florida Democratic Party.

How much of it is true? PolitiFact Florida analyzed the ad's claims.

Columbia troubles

The ad begins more like an introduction to a Dateline NBC episode than a campaign commercial, showing a much younger-looking Scott — with curly hair around the sides and back of his head — and adds the voice of a narrator with video news clips.

"Is Columbia/HCA putting profits ahead of patients?" NBC's Brian Williams asks in an undated video clip. Then, another male announcer asks, "Did Columbia treat a patient for a mild disease, then bill Medicare for something more expensive?" Then, a female reporter … "Three executives of Columbia/HCA health care corp. have been indicted."

The narration and accompanying video stem from Scott's time running mega hospital chain Columbia/HCA.

Quick background. Scott started Columbia in 1987 by purchasing two hospitals and grew it to be one of the nation's largest, merging with HCA in 1994. In 1997, federal agents launched an investigation into the chain for, among other things, Medicare and Medicaid fraud.

Scott resigned in the middle of the investigation in July 1997, saying he wanted to fight the accusations. But the corporate board of Columbia/HCA chose to settle, pleading guilty to 14 corporate felonies and agreeing to pay $1.7 billion in fines and penalties.

So we rate True accusations that Columbia/HCA committed fraud.

On the claim that three executives of Columbia/HCA were indicted, we find that Half True. (Four executives were indicted, but none ultimately was convicted.)

The ad then pivots to allegations specifically about Scott.

A narrator claims: "A whistleblower revealed that Scott's company was cooking the books. Refusing to cooperate, Rick Scott gave a deposition in which he invoked the Fifth Amendment 75 times."

That's Mostly True. Scott did give a deposition in 2000 where he invoked his Constitutional privilege not to provide information about himself. But the deposition was not part of the criminal investigation. It stemmed from an unrelated civil case.

The ad then makes a murky claim about the Fifth Amendment, and what voters can take away from Scott using it 75 times. The ad quotes Palm Beach County's Democratic state attorney, Michael McAuliffe, who says a "truthful answer to the questions that (Scott) was asked would incriminate him."

That's Half True. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Fifth Amendment cannot imply guilt in a criminal trial. In a civil trial, a judge and jury can infer that Scott's answers would incriminate him, but they also can choose not to.

"If this was a criminal prosecution I would not refer to his invocation of the Fifth Amendment, but that's not what we're talking about," McAuliffe said. "This is not a criminal prosecution. It's the political process and he has put himself out there to be vetted by voters. They're the jury in this case."

New fraud at Solantic

The second half of the ad talks about Solantic, an urgent patient care business Scott co-founded in 2001.

"In 2008, new allegations emerged that Solantic was also engaging in multiple forms of fraud," the narrator says over visuals of flapping sheriff's police tape, a detective in a suit taking notes and men in police T-shirts carrying boxes out of a building.

The claims of fraud are real, but suggesting through images that police raided or seized records from Solantic is misleading. Ads are about both the visuals and the words campaigns choose. In this case, the Democratic Party is inflating the allegations against Solantic by including video of sheriff's tape and police collecting evidence. There have been no reports that we could find of police raiding a Solantic facility and the Democratic Party, when asked, could provide no evidence of any such search. We rate that claim False.

Summary

Scott still has plenty of explaining to do about allegations of fraud both while running Columbia/HCA and at his new health care company, Solantic. Sink and Democrats try to play up the unanswered questions in a rare, two-minute ad set to air today. While many of the facts of the ad are correct, Sink and Democrats also use some clever editing and misleading visuals to sensationalize some of the accusations against Scott.

Times staff writer Michael C. Bender contributed to this report.

Read the full rulings

For all these rulings and more go to PolitiFact.com/Florida.

Watch Sink's ad

See the 2-minute ad attacking Rick Scott's business record at

links.tampabay.com.

Sink's ad attacking Scott gets fraud claims right, but also misleads 10/12/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 12, 2010 9:24pm]
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